Explained: ‘Simple assault’ and the confusion surrounding NYU’s alert emails

The term “simple assault” is not so simple. Recent communications from the university left students wondering what the term means and why it is being used to refer to serious attacks.


Manasa Gudavalli

An email sent by the NYU Department of Campus Safety contained the subject line “Simple Assault – Hate Crime,” but did not define the legal term “simple assault” in the alert. Many members of the university community are now confused about what the term “simple assault” means. (Staff Photo and Illustration by Manasa Gudavalli)

Two NYU students were victims of a homophobic hate crime at 14th Street and Third Avenue on Sept. 15, according to an email alert sent by the Department of Campus Safety. The two students reported that a man saw them holding hands and approached them, calling them homophobic slurs and punching one in the face. The day before, a WSN staffer saw a man who matched the suspect’s description using homophobic slurs on 14th Street between University Place and Fifth Avenue.

The email contained the subject line “Simple Assault – Hate Crime.” But the legal term “simple assault” — which refers to a type of hate crime — was not defined anywhere in the alert email, causing confusion among members of the university community.

The term is derived from the Clery Act, a federal statute requiring colleges and universities to collect and report crime statistics and security information within defined campus boundaries. (NYU’s boundaries include public areas such as Washington Square Park and the streets outside many campus buildings.) Based on guidelines from the Federal Bureau of Investigation about how to report hate crimes, the Clery Act defines “simple assault” as a physical attack that does not involve a weapon or cause the victim severe bodily injury.

After reading the email, many students argued the simple assault incident was not simple. Tisch sophomore Justin Walton said the term overlooked the complexity of the attack and that the university should explain legal terminology in future emails.

“Not only did someone punch someone, but they ended up using homophobic slurs,” Walton said. “Not only do those words hurt the person, but they were assaulted. Using ‘simple assault’ is misleading.”

CAS first-year Arabella Young said the university should not use the term in the subject line of the alert email since it cannot be contextualized. However, the university is likely using the term to conform with the statutory language of the Clery Act.

“For NYU to be calling all of these instances of hate crimes as ‘simple assaults’ is really degrading,” Young said. “The couple was physically assaulted because of their identity. Calling this a ‘simple assault’ completely undermines their experience — it’s much more than a ‘simple assault.’”

A version of this piece appeared in the Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, e-print edition. Contact Rachel Cohen, Rachel Fadem and Suhail Gharaibeh at [email protected].